By our very nature, humans are social animals. We nurture our young, form families and identify ourselves as part of larger social groups such as circles of friends, neighborhood ties, and memberships in clubs and organizations. Connecting with other people and forming bonds of communication and intimacy nourish our emotional and spiritual health as much as a healthy diet nourishes our bodies.
In this day and age, people can become increasingly cut off from others, leading to an increase in the prevalence of depression and feelings of isolation. Many go through their day-to-day lives surrounded by other people without making meaningful connections. The increasing use of the internet is a mixed blessing, allowing us to connect with other people via email and chat groups while remaining in the isolation of our homes. While the internet makes us feel connected, these communications lack the physical components of touch, body language and face to face communication.
We know that physical touch is extremely important to good health. Studies done in the 1930's in orphanages have shown that infants who are touched and picked up thrive and grow faster than those who are left alone in their cribs. Being touched in our early lives has been shown to help our brains and nervous systems develop in healthy ways.
As Dean Ornish, MD, states in his book Love & Survival, the healing power of love and relationships has been documented in an increasing number of well-designed scientific studies. In one study involving almost ten thousand married men, those who answered "yes" to the simple question, "Does your wife show you her love?" had significantly less angina (heart pain) even when they had high levels of risk factors such as elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and EKG abnormalities.
In other words, no matter how well people manage the physical risk factors in heart disease, the major killer of US citizens, our perceptions of love and connections to others is a major risk factor that is often overlooked by ourselves and our doctors.
In another study, researchers at Johns Hopkins tested and followed male medical students in the 1940's in order to determine if the quality of human relationships might be a factor in the development of cancer. Those who subsequently developed cancer were more likely to have described a lack of closeness with their parents than their healthy classmates, even 50 years later. Father-son relationships were particularly important to these male medical students.
Dr. David Spiegel, in a landmark study of women with metastatic breast cancer, found that women who regularly met for 90 minutes weekly for one year to express their feelings about their illness in a supportive environment lived on average twice as long as did other women who were not part of a support group.
The list of studies supporting the notion that intimacy, love and connections with others play an important role in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being is growing everyday.How can we stay connected with others in an increasingly disconnected world? There are many ways to do this. Keeping in regular communication with our families and friends, even if separated by distance, can maintain a level of intimacy and connection.
Expressing our love and affection to our partners and loved ones on a regular basis promotes intimacy and opens our hearts. Becoming involved in neighborhood organizations and groups that share our common interests increases our connections with our neighbors and creates bonds with those in our community, growing our circle of friends. Learning the names of people we interact with in little ways on a regular basis and greeting them personally grows our sense of connectedness with others.
I would be remiss if I didn't include the role our pets play in fostering good health and connections with others. Pets have been shown to play hugely important roles in our mental and physical well-being, especially in the elderly, people dealing with chronic diseases, and people who live alone and feel isolated. Fortunately, San Francisco, recognizing this as an important public health issue, recently passed a law allowing people with specific needs such as the above can obtain a waiver to have pets in rental units that traditionally do not allow pets.
Our connection with others is an important part of what makes us healthy, and creating positive relationships provides a healing influence on our society at large. Make an effort to connect with others on a daily basis and I guarantee your happiness and sense of wellness will increase.